There are few things more vexing in schools than special education. A new state law is intended to help more students get to a high school diploma, but the U.S. government is signaling that the state’s effort could conflict with federal law.
It’s not a case of the feds making trouble for the poor state of Louisiana, nor of the state seeking any confrontation.
Instead, a well-meaning statute and good intentions by officials at the state and local school levels might well have to be changed if federal concerns are not allayed.
The key feature of the 2014 measure allows teachers and parents who advise the students — called Individualized Education Program teams — to craft alternative paths to a diploma, regardless of how students fare on standardized tests that rank-and-file students have to pass.
“We are concerned that Louisiana’s Act 833 may permit IEP teams to set lower standards for promotion and graduation for students with disabilities,” said a letter signed by Michael K. Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.
This concern was raised by some advocates for the students during the Legislature, but members passed the law anyway. School districts, with perhaps more first hand experience of the complexities of the law and the students’ experience, have been wary about its implementation.
Yudin said a long-standing requirement of federal law is that students with disabilities get an education “so that they can be involved in, and make progress in, the general education curriculum.”
He said Congress amended the key federal education law in 2001 to require states apply “the same challenging academic content and achievement standards to all schools and all students, including students with disabilities.”
This is a complex issue because of the wide range of differing abilities of IEP students and thus their needs in schools. The 80,000 special education students in Louisiana schools are no small population. A low proportion of them go on to graduate.
We hope that the U.S. government will look carefully at the Act 833 implementation before rushing to any judgment. We don’t want to see a practice of waving through students instead of giving them quality educational experiences and rigorous academic standards, and we’re reasonably confident that is not intended by authors of the new law.
We hope that parents and teachers will draw attention to problems with this new statute and report it to the state task force overseeing implementation. The rubber meets the road in schools. These students deserve the best education possible, and that is not changed by the new state law.